MISHLOAH MANOT: During the day of Purim, Sunday March 16th, we send two presents to one or more friends. These presents consist of food, ideally food to be used during the Purim banquet. It is customary to include at least two different types of foods: a drink and a baked product. The intention of this Mitsva is to promote friendship and strengthen our unity. Mishloah Manot should not be given before Purim or during the night, but during Purim daytime. In certain circumstances, Mishloah Manot could be also a very discreet way to send food to those who need it but would feel very uncomfortable to ask for or receive charity.
MATANOT LA-EBIYONIM: In Purim we have another Mitsva called matanot la-ebiyonim or "Presents to needy people". These presents also consist of food, meant to be given to those who cannot afford to celebrate and enjoy a nice Purim banquet. The custom is to give two portions of food to two or more poor people. Or as it is usually done today, give to two needy people the monetary equivalent of two meals each.
matanot la-ebiyonim is also fulfilled by giving the monetary equivalent of two meals to a charity that distributes food.
If we don't find needy people during the day of Purim, we could deliver the money for charity after Purim.
Unlike mishloah manot, where the intention is to strengthen our friendship and unity and therefore, knowing who is the source of the presents is of the essence; in the case of presents for the poor, anonymity is a virtue. Because the intention should be to help someone in need to have a nice Purim meal and celebrate with happiness.
If our means are limited, our Rabbis indicated that we must be more generous in giving to the poor and needy than in spending for our own Purim banquet.
The Rabbis also said: en medaqdeqim bema'ot Purim, which means that althought normally we should be mindful about the credibility and reputation of the recipient of our charity, during Purim we should give charity freely to whoever extends his or her hand, asking for our help.
Inviting needy people to one's Purim banquet is considered a great merit. The rabbis said "There is no greater source of happiness than lifting up the hearts and spirits of the poor, orphans and widows".
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by Yvette Alt Miller, from aish.com